By Levi Sumagaysay and Bill Peters
Airport and airline workers staged demonstrations at airports across the U.S. and abroad Tuesday, protesting what they described as disorganized operations that have not built back up since staffing levels were cut at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing them to work too hard for too little pay.
The protests — which included restaurant and lounge workers as well as flight attendants from United Airlines Holdings Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL +2.06% and Southwest Airlines Co. /zigman2/quotes/201071949/composite LUV -0.91% — spanned dozens of outlets at San Francisco International Airport, as well as large U.S. airports such as those in Atlanta and Los Angeles, and overseas in London and Guam.
Food-service workers in San Francisco told MarketWatch they were striking to demand higher pay and to preserve their current healthcare benefits, as inflation chews away at workers’ incomes. Picketing flight attendants from Southwest and United Airlines demanded expanded compensation and changes to what they say are grueling scheduling policies.
Outside a terminal entrance in San Francisco, flight attendants marched together with the airport workers, some carrying signs that said “One job should be enough.”
“Everything is up but our wages,” said Frank Wang, 70, who has been a bartender at the airport’s United Club lounge for 16 years. He said margaritas now cost $22, hamburgers are $20 and beer is over $10. He makes $16.99 an hour.
“It’s ridiculous,” Wang said, adding that he knows of bartenders outside the airport who make at least $10 an hour more. “The owners are not giving an inch. They should give back to the employees.”
The actions, which the two airlines said hadn’t disrupted flight service, follow rising costs that have outpaced wages and short-staffing and other service hiccups that have caused thousands of flight delays and cancellations this year. And they come after demonstrations by pilots from American Airlines Group Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL +0.72% , Delta Air Lines Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL +0.14% and Southwest; the threat of a rail-worker strike , averted for now; and more vocal unionization efforts from household-name companies like Amazon.com Inc. /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN -3.31% and Starbucks Corp. /zigman2/quotes/207508890/composite SBUX -1.79% .
For more: Unions’ push at Amazon, Apple and Starbucks could be ‘most significant moment in the American labor movement’ in decades
“We’re extremely tired of having to tell our Southwest customers that we’re sorry when we do have those service disruptions,” said Lyn Montgomery, the president of Southwest’s flight attendants union and a 27-year flight attendant.
Montgomery’s union, TWA Local 556, planned to picket at 10 airports, with the demonstrations set to end later in the day, she said. They’d planned to demonstrate in Orlando as well, but didn’t as the region braces for Hurricane Ian, she said. The Association of Flight Attendants, which represents the flight attendants at United, planned to picket at 15 airports, including London and Guam.
Both restaurants and airlines cut back at the beginning of the pandemic, with airlines steering many employees toward buyouts even as billions in government payroll support rolled in. But as travel demand roared back, airlines and airports have found themselves understaffed, and at times facing unruly passengers. Some airline union members have suspected the airlines of overscheduling flights, even amid the understaffing.
When flights resumed during the pandemic, airlines brought back flight attendants but not enough schedulers, said Kristie Rivera, local executive council president for the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA Council 11. Schedulers help make sure flights are properly crewed.
She was at the San Francisco airport with protesting United Airlines flight attendants whom she said are being negatively affected by internal process issues. She said there are now fewer than half of the 200 schedulers who were available before the pandemic.
That means that some flight attendants wait for “five to six hours on hold after their 14-hour days” to get their schedules, she said. “That contributes to flight delays and cancellations.”
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Susannah Carr, a United flight attendant and a representative for AFA-CWA who attended the demonstration at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, said scheduling issues can pile up quickly. She said if a flight gets canceled, flight attendants often call crew scheduling to find out if they’re reassigned. But time spent on hold leads to more frustration.
She added that when passengers get delayed, flight attendants get delayed too, and that those attendants are repeatedly tasked with working out flight-related hitches.